Now as I am approaching yet another birthday, I have been thinking about the long slow path to wisdom. I had the opportunity recently to sit with and listen to a First Nations elder who took the time to help me understand a little about the tradional beliefs of his people.
He talked of many things. His tribe is rich in elders, he said, and they are deeply respected as the knowledge holders of the culture. One does not judge an elder by appearance nor by the life he or she has led. Rather, one looks for the good, the special knowledge that person has. No-one self designates as an elder. Nor does someone become recognized as an elder simply because of age. A person finds an older person to go to, and visits with that person and listens to him or her. That is an elder, an older experienced person from whom others seek wisdom or guidance.
That led me to think about our mainstream North American culture. We do not respect our elders. More typically, we fear aging and avoid or are scornful of the aged. For models of how to live, we look to celebrities: entertainers, sports stars, politicians, or people who have been widely recognized for accomplishments in their fields. People are respected by virtue of the material wealth they have accumulated, and status is conferred on the basis of their position of power and authority.
I have noticed that since taking up my current, more senior administrative position, I am treated with considerably more deference than in my previous position. Yet I don't think I have changed a great deal in the last six months. I am not that much wiser or more capable. The way people treat me is mostly a function of my position.
I say "mostly" because the causality is not straight forward and one-way. In order to attain this position, I went through a stringent hiring process, in which my knowledge, experience, interpersonal style, and belief system were carefully evaluated. I have had many years of education and many years of career experience leading up to and preparing me for this current position. I was found to be a "good fit" and offered the job. My organization wanted a certain kind of person who would be able to do certain things for them. Because this is what they want, and because they chose me, they believe that I can do these things. They want to believe in me and the position itself confers a greater latitude to make decisions; therefore I have more opportunities to be wise or unwise. Or perhaps more accurately, my decisions and actions are in a bigger sphere, and have have more visible and serious consequences.
So is this very different from the First Nation on whose territory I live? There is plenty of evidence that many mainstream politicians and other leaders in positions of authority sometimes do not behave wisely. We watch them closely and are quick to judge them. The elder who was teaching me said that in his culture, they do not judge an elder because of poor choices. Perhaps someone was a drunk or a street person. You look for that special knowledge, and listen and treat the elder with respect. Each person in the community is free to be himself or herself, without having to dress or act a certain way.
In our mainstream society, I am not sure that we value and respect leaders in the same way. I see my colleagues working extremely hard and putting in very long hours in their jobs. Yet in many organizations, it seems that people sit in judgment and are quick to complain if a decision does not go their way. One senior leader told me that what he enjoys about his job is the tension; it is energizing and exciting to be making difficult rapid-fire decisions, or to to engage in challenging labour negotiations. Another told me that the organization pays her a big salary, and in exchange, she gives them a piece of her soul.
I am energized by problem solving, but not by interpersonal tension. And no amount of money in the world can buy a piece of my soul. I do feel constrained to dress and behave in a certain way (at work, and out in the public eye). As well, I do feel that people watch me and judge my actions as a leader.
The path to wisdom is long and the journey is slow. I will keep putting one foot in front of another. I will listen, and to try to do my best. And I will try to forgive myself if sometimes I am not very wise.